Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Destruction of Poverty in Nigeria

Obe: The destruction of poverty

Wednesday, 22 February 2012 00:00
By Ayo Obe Opinion - Columnists
Nigerian Guardian

ONE of the bogeymen brought out to scare us during the (now temporarily suspended) fuel price increase crisis was the awful spectre of Greece.

It was an awful spectre indeed. Greece has already had its elected government replaced by one led by ‘technocrats’, and its previous culture of almost daily demonstrations has taken a new, desperate and ugly turn. Its suicide rate, formerly one of the lowest in Europe, has doubled; public daytime drug use has become unremarkable; unemployment rates have skyrocketed, as have the numbers forced to turn to soup kitchens run by religious organisations (which, lucky for them, but not necessarily for Greece, don’t pay tax and can thus afford to expand their charitable activities). Visitors to Greece talk of public buildings in decline, dwindling services and well-dressed men and women, catapulted out of the middle class, begging for money. Increasingly porous (because sparsely protected) borders have allowed in many more economic migrants and political refugees, but they are the butt of a resentment and hostility that is matched only by that directed towards the unfeeling skinflints of northern Europe and their unreasonable insistence that Greece should stick to existing agreements about how much government spending it was going to cut and how much more income it was going to raise before it can be allowed to borrow any more money to keep it afloat.

So much for Greece. The Nigeria Poverty Profile 2010 Report recently released by our own National Bureau of Statistics on the other hand, shows that over 60% of Nigerians live in absolute poverty, or on less than the equivalent of one United States dollar per day. Against such a background, most of our fellow citizens might pray to be as lucky as the newly-impoverished Greeks.

Except of course, that you can’t miss what you never had. The sad fact about the figures from the NBS is that both the number and the proportion of poor people in Nigeria are increasing.

But if our poor are worse off than Greece’s poor, are we, like Greece, also heading in the wrong direction? It is after all, the place from which Greece has fallen that makes it so frightening: not so much that it is falling, but that any confidence that the fall can be arrested in the near future is slim to non-existent; not so much that the Greek poor are begging in the streets, but that the day before yesterday, those poor were moderately well-off members of the middle class.

Despite the determination with which Nigeria’s middle classes have clung to the prosperity side of the abyss, their survival and advances have been in spite of government neglect and policies, not because of them. Our lower classes however, have been less fortunate. Evidence across the world shows, and those NBS figures confirm, that the tendency of poverty is to breed more poverty: the under-aged, malnourished mother gives birth to a baby whose own malnourishment deprives it of the full intellectual capacity that it ought to enjoy, only to face a ruling class which reluctantly responds to the health, education and infrastructure demands of an increasing population a day late and a dollar short, preferring to put the increased revenues that should have been more than enough to cope in their pockets, or to fritter it away on – what was that thing whose non-completion the people allegedly responded to with stone-throwing in Bayelsa State? Ah yes: Five Star Hotels.

The tendency of poverty to reproduce itself can be arrested, but positive intervention is required for that to happen. Self-serving theories about ‘trickle down’ prosperity and ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ are hardly working even in the rich world, let alone Nigeria where the ‘trickle’ is trickling on to stony, unprepared ground, and the rising tide is drowning the people because they are chained to the bottom. Political will is all about making those positive interventions, preparing the stony ground, and breaking the chains of poverty. But as Greg Mills argued in his book: Why Africa is Poor – and what Africans can do about it, Africa’s people, or more specifically, Nigeria’s people, remain poor because our leaders have made that choice.

In Nigeria, the land where a previous generation of rulers fretted about the effect of universal primary education on the supply of househelps and domestic workers, too many of our ‘big men’ seem to have been measuring their height – not by how close they are to the ceiling – but by how far they stand above the wretched in society.

Thirty years of free basic education later, we can see that they need not have worried. Now however, with former United States President Bill Clinton’s warning about the link between poverty and violence coinciding with the same warnings given at home which we preferred to ignore under guise of attacking the singer rather than the song, Nigeria’s ‘elite’ may be ready to address the destruction wrought by poverty because of self-interest, it being sadly apparent that concern for the poor proved an insufficient spur.

Fortunately for us, Nigeria’s impressive growth figures are one reason why we should not follow Greece on a downward trajectory. Yet those figures will remain meaningless if we do not in fact translate them into positive outcomes for our poor or into giving the middle class the tools that they – the real creators of jobs and prosperity – need to pull this country up by its bootstraps.

The NBS Poverty Report has knocked the bottom out of some of the conclusions that previous information on poverty in Nigeria had suggested. When, in 2008, former Central Bank Governor Charles Soludo lectured the Federal University of Technology in Owerri about ‘Making Finance Work for the Poor’, his figures showed that the South-East geopolitical zone had the lowest incidence of poverty: that is, the same zone that had been protesting its marginalisation since the end of the civil war in 1970. Those figures suggested that the South-East’s response had not stopped at protesting marginalisation but that (perhaps knowing that help might not come?) its people had responded with their own effort.

It is beyond the competence of this writer to speculate about the factors that have the NBS profile showing the South-West zone – which held the presidency for eight years – having the lowest incidence of poverty, while Niger State – which produced two Heads of State – has the lowest incidence of poverty in all the country’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.

What both Soludo’s data (which covered the period up to 2004) and the NBS figures (which are for 2010) show, is that the North-West and the North-East zones, which have also had their time at the seat of federal power, show the highest rates of poverty. Economists and statisticians may care to investigate what – if anything – this has to do with holding power at the centre. The stark figures suggest its irrelevance.

And as they get tempted to start another bunfight about where the presidency is or is not going in 2015, instead of thinking deeply about how to deploy the resources available to them at state and local government levels in 2012, that irrelevance is something that our politicians need to hold on to, particularly now that events are converging that should concentrate all minds that are capable of being concentrated on how to destroy poverty, before poverty destroys us.

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